By: Peter Denton
With the first snow on the ground and Christmas coming, it’s time to talk turkey about pipelines, and the turkey has landed with the Trudeau government’s pipeline announcements. Two projects were given the go-ahead Tuesday — an extension of Enbridge’s Line 3 and a tripling of capacity for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain line to Vancouver.
How Canada got here is not just about the facts. It’s about the story, the moral narrative, in which facts are included or excluded as the storyteller requires.
One narrative is unfolding south of the border in North Dakota at Standing Rock. It is obviously about aboriginal land rights and treaties, but it is most importantly about whether corporate interests require a licence to operate.
Not merely a legal licence, but a social licence, as well. In other words, when resources (such as land and water) that belong to all the people are put at risk by the actions of a small group, using them for their own benefit, does the rest of society need to give permission first?
The other narrative about pipelines is the one that has brought our society to where it is today — with its huge disparity in personal wealth, between the one per cent and the 99 per cent; its prosperity with respect to other countries; and the luxuries many of us enjoy as a result.
In that narrative, economic interest trumps everything else. Government exists to facilitate the acquisition of money by those who have the means to use the taxation and legal systems to their advantage. Environmental concerns are like bugs hitting the windshield on a summer’s highway drive to the lake — if there are too many, you need to pull to the side of the road and clean them off before continuing on your journey, but you certainly don’t stop for very long.
If we don’t change the story underpinning the choices we make as individuals and as a society to move away from focusing on economics, however, we will continue to change the planet into a place where no one — rich or poor — can easily or happily live.
For example, the new pipelines are intended to handle future long-distance flows of oil, beyond the current system capacity, into a growing global market that will pay more money for more oil. The pipelines are thus intended to provide economic stability for future generations of Canadians.
This is so obviously more fantasy than fact. Global warming and greenhouse gas reduction commitments mean future generations worldwide will want much less oil, not more of it. They will want it closer to home than northern Alberta, to ensure a secure supply in the midst of political and climate instability. The final absurdity is that Canada will never be able to predict or control the global price of oil — since the 1970s, it has been quite clear that other players elsewhere in the world make those decisions.
As for economic stability, investing public money in oil and gas instead of renewable energy is economic malpractice, which becomes clear once you check the markets and see where the returns on investment are really to be found these days.
Nor are the jobs necessarily as advertised. Someone made the wry observation that the largest numbers of jobs associated with the pipeline industry are in cleaning up the spills, not in building or maintaining the pipelines.
Investing in new pipelines means investing in an obsolete technology for highly dubious economic reasons, discounting obvious risks and relying on a moral narrative of industrial progress that can no longer be sustained.
There is an older story about oil worth remembering, one from 1849, when a Canadian named Abraham Gesner invented a cheap and easy way to refine kerosene. In a very short period of time, kerosene replaced sperm whale oil as what people used to light their rooms at night.
Imagine the scene in 1846, though, when the demand for sperm oil was strong, investment opportunities in the whaling industry seemed as lucrative as ever, and entire communities depended on it for their economic survival.
Technologies change, but more importantly, different stories lead us to reframe the facts toward the ending we prefer. In a country ruled by laws that are made and enforced for the benefit of everyone, including future generations, peaceful disagreements are the way we have changed the story.
When laws are made and enforced to prefer economic interests over environmental concerns, where present profit outweighs future risk, where justice is not seen to be done for those without the power or money to fight things in court, unfortunately, there are other ways.
No one in their right mind would operate a vulnerable pipeline across the whole country when the people whose land it crosses object to its presence. In the end, the social licence any business has to operate is more important than whatever its lawyers can argue in the courts.
We all need to watch the story unfolding at Standing Rock and be concerned about how it ends.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
This article was originally posted in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 1, 2016.